Abstractions vs. Literal Names in Branding

Take two brands: Apple and Microsoft.

The word “Apple” is an abstraction. It doesn’t mean anything related to computers or phones. Microsoft, on the other hand, is named for the fact that the company started by making micro-computer software. Although Microsoft has been incredibly successful, their branding has always been less than they deserve. Contrarily, Apple’s brand has had die hard fans no matter what Apple did. (OS9 and Newton, I’m looking at you!)

Let’s be clear, Apple’s branding has more to do with their style and products than just the name. For this post however, we are focusing on the way we name things.

UX Rule #26
If you have the chance to name something, go with an abstraction. Literal names are boring and people won’t love them.

I believe that literal names are awful. It gets even worse when your literal names are so long that you have to use acronyms. People don’t love acronyms. (Exception to the rule: SCUBA) My previous company named everything with TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). It drove me crazy, I hated it.

I like the metaphor of a brand as a cup that you fill with emotions and expectations. With an abstraction you can put whatever you want in the cup. With a literal name you can’t.

For example: Amazon.com used to have a competitor called Books.com. At the time, they both sold books exclusively. Amazon could extend their brand and sell anything. Books.com was literal and eventually failed. I guarantee that some idiot at Books.com was thrilled with himself for getting the best domain name to sell books. Being literal doesn’t get you anything.

There is a reason you don’t get your music from music.com. Anyone buying that domain will spend alot of money and get nothing for it. Microsoft Internet Explorer just changed their browser name to Edge. They have wasted almost 20 years with a bad brand name for their browser. It may be too little, too late.

More importantly, people are not going to fall in love with you if you are too literal. Love is the goal of a company brand. Not like. Not friend-zone. LOVE! Mad, passionate, die hard fanatics. UX is about creating that love. Don’t ruin a good product by saddling it with a boring name. Find the creative people in your organization. The wacky people. They may be interns. Ask them to come up with cool names that aren’t literal.

Branding takes creativity and the willingness to do something new. Don’t succumb to the conservative boring approach. Be bold and prosper.


2 replies on “Abstractions vs. Literal Names in Branding”

I think it is easy to pick and choose who was successful. IBM and GE are both boring and acronyms, yet they are two of the most successful brands is modern history. Coca-Cola is as boring as possible, but it’s doing pretty well. On the other end, Google is a made up word. Perhaps, the best brands are named after people, Walmart, Ford, Berkshire Hathaway, Wells Fargo, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Toyota, (although his name was actually Toyoda). And interesting study would be Exxon, which was originally Standard Oil (generic boring name), but was broken and became Esso, and eventually Exxon (which has no meaning). I remember a while back there was a big deal about the domain wine.com, so I did a quick search and wine.com is the #1 online wine retailer.

It would be interesting to categorize all the publicly traded companies’ names into categories and see the distribution.

Whatya think?